Thursday 31 December 2015

Highs and Lows of 2015

Where has the year gone?!

Best Opera: Not a vintage year at either of London's two main houses, but fortunately other places made up for it. A tie between a show I didn't review, Glyndebourne's witty, straightforward, and human Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and the outstanding semi-staged Le Nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Worst Opera: The Royal Opera made a strong bid for this award with their dire production of Guillaume Tell, and English National Opera also tried for it with their dreary Pirates of Penzance, but no opera in 2015 was completely without redemption. No award.

Best Play: A vintage year. Honourable mentions to the moving 3 Winters at the National in early January and to the RSC's Oppenheimer. Even then it's still almost impossible to separate three top class shows: the Barbican's superlative Waiting for Godot (I haven't laughed so much at a show since One Man Two Governors), the National's mesmerising Man and Superman and the smaller scale but no less powerful Temple at the Donmar. Godot just edges it.

Worst Play: Exceptional level of competition for this and almost all of it was from one venue, Rupert Goold's Almeida. Critical opinion keeps raving about work there, from where I was sitting in 2015 it was flop after flop. The worst was the ghastly Game back in March. Honorable mention for the Traverse's revival of the interminable An Oak Tree at the Fringe.

Best Musical: A tie between two shows I didn't get round to reviewing, the Donmar's outstanding revival of City of Angels, and Memphis in the West End – the latter a far tougher and more powerful take on American race relations than I'd anticipated.

Worst Musical: There was no award for this until in mid-December Rufus Norris's misfiring first year at the National made a successful bid for it with the dismal Will it survive till April?

Unclassifiable Show of the Year: The remarkable En avant, marche! at the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival. Comes to Sadler's Wells for a short run in June as part of LIFT 2016. Well worth catching.

What am I looking forward to in 2016: Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale and Zoe Wanamaker in Harlequinade in early January. The return of the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra to the Barbican in February. The incredibly starry casting of Grey Gardens in Southwark. And with luck (as I'm still waiting to hear about my ballot result) a number of goodies in Glyndebourne's very exciting 2016 season.

Shows Dr Pollard is still waiting for revivals of: Stephen Oliver's Timon of Athens, 1776 the musical (with the number of off-West End musicals these days you'd think somebody would get round to this gem), Prokofiev's War and Peace (presumably the ROH can't find an off the wall director who wants to do it and ENO has likely both junked the marvellous Albery production and in any case can't afford even a revival of such a show at present) and a proper main stage revival of Follies (if only Norris had picked that for his inaugural musical revival at the National rather than the Threepenny Opera).

Saturday 19 December 2015

Husbands and Sons at the National, or No Way Out

As usual, just when I was beginning to despair of ever seeing a really good piece of theatre again (after a run of three particularly dismal shows at the National), the magic returns. The show responsible on this occasion was somewhat surprising given that the author is D.H. Lawrence, a writer I last encountered (and disliked) at school.

This play is, it seems, an amalgamation (by Ben Power) of three plays by Lawrence, all set in a mining community similar to the one in which the author grew up. This mash up evidently offended some critics who remembered performances of the individual plays from years ago and thought they were weakened (for some fatally) through being combined. Not having seen the plays before I had no such problem, and if I hadn't been told it was a combination of three plays I'm not sure I'd have known. The stories were very effectively linked together by two common threads: unhappy households and the curse of the mining existence – from neither is there any escape, to which is added a further layer of pain since it is by no means clear that the characters wish to.

Here We Go/Evening at the Talk House at the National, or, Committing my Cardinal Theatrical Sin Twice in One Evening

Hot on the heels of the dismal come two more National Theatre misses (and the rest of Norris's first months in charge weren't that hot to start with).

First up on Thursday I suffered through Caryl Churchill's Here We Go. This is the third Churchill play I've seen and it remains beyond me why she is considered one of our greatest playwrights. This one consists of three short scenes (the second and third ones of which both seriously outstay their welcome). First we are at a wake where the guests give snatches of information about the deceased before telling us how they themselves will die – since we have hardly met any of these people (and Churchill is plainly uninterested in giving us any more information about them) it is difficult to care very much – though I did enjoy seeing Susan Engel (wonderful in 3 Winters back in January) in action again. Second, we meet the deceased (I don't really see how there can be any doubt about this) in what is presumably the afterlife where he treats us to a tour of literary and religious ideas about that afterlife – lectures rarely work on stage in my experience, and this is no exception not least because all we know by the end of the scene is that we don't know what happens when we die which I already knew before I came in. Third, and most interminably, we watch as the same old man, assisted by his care worker, changes from pyjamas to day clothes and back again time after time after time in silence. Has there ever been such a desperately drawn out fade to blackout? at the National, or, It Should Have Stayed in Manchester

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 12th December 2015.

There is really only one reason to see this show, and that is Anna Francolini, who makes a valiant effort to inject some life into it. Sadly the material is too weak, and she is not on stage enough to succeed. After the experience of Dr Dee (Damon Albarn's last foray into musical theatre and one of the many nails in English National Opera's coffin) my hopes were not high (and fell further after reviews of the initial run at the Manchester International Festival), but I didn't think it would be quite so dull and too often cringe-inducing as this.

The show is dramatically inert. The plot moves forward with a slowness that is at times desperate (when I first glanced at my watch and saw only 25 minutes had passed I knew we were in for a painful afternoon). It is about the putting back together of Aly's (Lois Chimimba) family, and getting Aly to value herself as she is (the show has a terrible tendency to hit the audience over the head regarding this point). Aly achieves this first by retreating into the world of on-line gaming (where she creates an avatar (Alice)) and the show inadequately connects with its source material) and finally by renouncing this world. Oh and there's an attempt at a villain in the form of Francolini's Ms Manxome – an unhinged headmistress. None of the interactions, characters, or relationships are given any meaningful depth by text or music, though Francolini almost deceived me at times.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Staggering! Booking for the 2016 Edinburgh International Festival

We all make mistakes. To err is, after all, human. The important thing is to recognise when you have done so, and to learn from them, and to try to not make the same mistakes again. Also, it never hurts to apologise.

In December 2014, the Edinburgh International Festival announced that they would open booking for concerts and recitals before announcing the rest of the programme. This infuriated us as we like to immerse ourselves in the full breadth of the programme. Doubly frustrating as it seemed a rash and ill thought out decision, with little consideration for the impact it had on many loyal supporters of the Festival. For example, it was interesting when, earlier this year we received a fundraising call. We mentioned our displeasure at the staggered booking proposal, to which the member of staff gave a hollow laugh and admitted they'd had a busy time dealing with the feedback.

Still, it seemed the lesson had been learnt. Festival Director Fergus Linehan wrote a letter to all those who complained. This was subsequently sent to supporters. The matter seemed to be concluded and, credit where credit is due, we thanked the Edinburgh International Festival for heeding feedback.  Unfortunately that decision came too late for them to reverse their decision to put the theatre production Antigone on sale early, and because of that they lost the opportunity to sell a ticket for it to us (we instead chose to see it in London).

Sadly it is now clear we were wrong.

Saturday 24 October 2015

The Showstoppers present Where's Runnicles, the song

Our friend, and former contributor to this blog, Andrew Pugsley is currently appearing in the west end with The Showstoppers. If you're unfamiliar, it's an astonishing and hilarious improvised musical, based on suggestions from the audience. We maybe a little biased, but have seen it many times at the Edinburgh fringe and can thoroughly recommend it. See review here.

We donated some money to their recent crowdfunding campaign to help with their London run. In return, they made us this fun video answering a question we've asked from time to time. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Friday 16 October 2015

Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar, or, Another Failed Issue Play

Note: A slightly delayed review of the performance on Friday 9th October 2015.

The penultimate scene of this dull overlong play offers a fleeting glimpse of what might have been. The central character, Gabe (Luke Newberry), in emotional turmoil, seeks sex in a public toilet with potentially serious consequences. It's virtually the only moment in the evening when the oppressive environment for the GLBT community on the unnamed university campus which Christopher Shinn's text goes on and on about actually feels emotionally real. Unfortunately the rest of the play gets nowhere near this.

In advance I suspected the play might be a classic issues lecture. There are certainly elements of this, and they work about as well as such things in live theatre usually work. But as it turns out this is not the play's main problem which is three fold – a multiplicity of strands which never fully cohere, the shallowly drawn nature of the characters (most of whom feel like types rather than potentially real people) and the lack of emotional punch.

Saturday 29 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Murmel, Murmel, or, Not Side-Splittingly Funny

The International Festival brochure proclaims this show to be “a side-splittingly funny 80 minutes”. On the basis of my experience I conclude that, presuming Fergus Linehan did see the show before booking it, he and I have wildly divergent senses of humour.

There is no question that the twelve strong ensemble of performers in this show are very talented people who can sing, move, dance and dive/fall off the stage onto a crash mat to a high standard. But a talented ensemble alone does not make a successful show and, once again this Festival, this is an ensemble let down by the show they are performing in.

Friday 28 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Die Zauberflöte, or, Played Incessantly (and Unsuccessfully) for Laughs

For the second fully staged opera of the 2015 Festival, Fergus Linehan turned to Mills era regular Barry Kosky. I did not rate the previous Kosky directed shows I saw highly but on paper this sounded a promising collaboration with 1927 Productions. The pity of this evening is that the central idea, of staging the work as a silent film, is an excellent way to deal with the dialogue. In themselves, those sections do work fairly well. Unfortunately much of the rest of the evening is problematic.

To understand why we do have to begin in this case with the production. This consists of constant film projections onto an enormous screen into which are fitted ledges so that cast members can appear both on the ground and in the air. Given the many environments the text calls for, this is not in itself a bad idea, the opening image of a madly running Tamino pursued by a dragon is quite fun, and the many entrances/exits of singers are adeptly handled. But two problems rapidly emerge: the animators are determined to play everything for laughs and they clearly believe that something visual must be going on virtually all the time. With regard to the first they have, I'm afraid, misunderstood the work. There are of course places which are meant to be funny, but there are equally places that are serious – when you have your audience laughing about suicide and rape – then things have gone badly wrong. Incessant busyness is an all too familiar vice of modern opera directors. Kosky claims in the programme note that “there are moments when the singers are in a simple white spotlight. Suddenly there is only the music, the text and the character.” I counted a grand total of two such moments in Act Two, and they were very fleeting. Too often, for me, this constant busyness was in conflict with the music. Equally frustratingly, although there are places where Mozart's music would in theory benefit from something else going on, animation tended to simply repeat a fairly basic point till it became tiresome (for example right at the outset the repeated hearts of the ladies fluttering down on Tamino). The bomb whose fuse burns down but which doesn't explode for what feels like an eternity is simply ludicrous (and not in a good way). Little feels at stake in the trials. Overall, I had the distinct feeling that the animators neither trusted the music, nor thought anybody should be paying much attention to it.

EIF 2015 - Lanark, or, Can We Please Have a Moratorium on Breaking the Fourth Wall?

I haven't read Alasdair Gray's novel on which this adaptation is based. I'm in two minds as to whether I now should read it as some investigation following this show suggests that things I really disliked are faithful to the original work. From this the reader will gather that I am once again in dissent from the generally highly positive majority opinion on this show.

First, the positives. The acting ensemble is very strong. Sandy Grierson as Lanark and Jessica Hardwick as Reemer (?) deserve particular credit. They failed my ultimate test of really making me give a damn about their characters, but the fault for that lay with the work. The supporting players, all of them taking on a variety of parts, also deserve high praise – I especially enjoyed George Drennan's Lift (did Gray borrow from Douglas Adams's doors or was it the other way round?) and Gerry Mulgrew's Scarlatti playing Professor. Director Graham Eatough generally marshalls them effectively – the movement in Act Two is notable but has less impact than it might do because of the nature of the work.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

EIF 2015 - En avant, marche!, or, A Way of Finding Courage

I can explain what this show is about. I'm not sure that I can recapture why it packs such a punch.  The primary story tells of the first trombone of a brass band (the remarkable Wim Opbrouck) who owing to illness can no longer perform. Through broken snatches of speech, gargling, song, silence and some remarkable choreography the show meditates both on this loss and the perhaps more terrible final one which confronts him. Simultaneously, the show is also a larger meditation on the nature of community – a striking commentary on which is provided by the participation of a local brass band from wherever the show is being performed (in this case the superb Dalkeith and Monktonhall Brass Band). The contrast between their history (as described in the programme) and the jobs of current members (elicted as part of the performance) is especially eloquent.

Early on the piece is often funny (the first trombone's wife's bitter complaints about her husband's insistence on sleeping with his trombone as well as her). But the tone steadily darkens. When the D & M forces bring matters to a conclusion with Holst's Jupiter, simply played straight out to the audience, it was powerfully moving.

Sunday 23 August 2015

EIF 2015 – HMS Pinafore, or, Showing London How It's Done (Again)

This concert performance of HMS Pinafore continues two trends of the 2015 Festival. First, like the semi-staged Budapest Figaro it contained more drama than many fully staged operas seen in London this season (the contrast with ENO's dull fully staged Pirates was especially telling). Second, it maintained the music/opera strand of this year's Festival as its strongest element. Altogether it was an enormously fun afternoon at the Usher Hall.

It was sensibly decided, as I gather was also done when Sir Charles Mackerras conducted the work at the Proms ten years ago, to substitute a single narrator for the spoken dialogue. Tim Brooke-Taylor performed this role with excellent wit harnessing the best of Gilbert's dialogue to some choice anecdotes (the neat reference to W.H. Smith's other profession was an especially deft touch).

EIF 2015 – Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or, Unsuccessful Variations on a Wearily Familiar Theme

This show is the third of the Festival's drama programme concerned a) to attempt to challenge more traditional approaches to theatre making and b) to make out the construction of stories to be much more complicated than it needs to be. Earlier attempts The Encounter and 887 both possessed plenty of positive elements to compensate for the problems such approaches create (as I hope my earlier reviews made clear). This show is a dismal also ran.

Before I go any further I should make clear that this piece includes what the company would probably regard as spoilers. Its run has now ended at the Festival, but obviously it may be revived elsewhere, so if you think you are likely to see it and don't want to have what passes for its suprise element spoiled (though I don't myself think that element is very surprising) then I advise you not to continue reading.

EIF 2015 – Seven, or, Attempted Epic Falls Flat

A ballet choreographed to a complete performance of Mahler's Seventh Symphony with live orchestra in the pit sounded from the outset like the sort of unusual Festival show that could go two ways – either be an unique, remarkable experience, or an endurance test. Unfortunately, this show is the latter.

The first point which ought to be made quite clear is that choreographer Martin Schläpfer has not choreographed the whole of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. There are too many places in this performance when Mahler's music is chuntering on in the pit and nothing is happening on stage (the bizarre opening to the final movement is a key instance). This might be more tolerable if the choreography were more convincing, but Schläpfer simply hasn't got a sufficient vocabulary to sustain a 90 minute dance piece. After the opening movement you have pretty much seen what he has to offer and it is not improved by repetition. Only at the very end does something really new appear – a weird solo with bedside table coupled to a game of musical chairs. The choreography attempts the creation neither of sustained characters or narrative, nor does it respond convincingly to single movements in themselves (there are exceptions within movements) or to the work as a whole – it is essentially highly episodic. To couple such an approach to Mahler I frankly found rather baffling, because Mahler's Symphony is not meant to be played episodically – though this performance tried unsuccessfully to make it sound in places as if it was. To my eyes there was overall a strong divergence between music and choreography.

Saturday 22 August 2015

EIF 2015 – 887, or The Problem of Indiscipline

I'm fairly certain this was my first encounter with Robert Lepage's work. There was much to admire and it engaged my heart (always an important question for me) more than Simon McBurney's The Encounter. But ultimately this show also falls short of true greatness because of script indiscipline.

Like The Encounter, Lepage's narrative combines two strands. Firstly an exploration of his childhood in Quebec at a time of a rising, and increasingly violent, nationalist movement. Secondly, a request to recite a famous cultural output of that era, Michele Lalonde's poem Speak White at a 40th anniversary celebration of a key cultural evening for that rising nationalism. The poem itself is very powerful, and I was grateful to Lepage for introducing me to it, but much of the rest of that strand of the narrative struck me as self-indulgent, and distracting from the power of the story of Lepage's childhood.

Monday 17 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Le Nozze di Figaro, or, A Triumph of Inventiveness and Joy

In advance of this performance, I was sceptical. It sounded gimmicky to me, and I've seen too many neophyte directors let loose on opera, to usually disastrous results. I could not have been more wrong. This is a triumph, and despite being in theory semi-staged knocks many recent fully staged productions in London out of the ballpark. Add to that one of the finest musical performances of opera the Festival has seen in recent times and you have a special evening.

The performance was directed by conductor Ivan Fischer. He places the orchestra on stage grouped around a central podium, with a walkway across the stage separating some strings from the rest of the ensemble. Some attempts are made to include the orchestra in the action, but generally they simply play. Yet they somehow contrive to emanate this feeling that they are part of a narrative, even though (apart from the odd wig) they remain in black tie for the duration while the singers are changing costumes and indulging in a fair bit of stage business. Perhaps the only thing to say about it is that there is some strange performance alchemy at work here.

Thursday 13 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Last Hotel, or, In the Shadow of John Adams

In interviews following the Festival's programme launch in March, Fergus Linehan was candid about the challenges for the opera segment of the programme. At the same time he unveiled a canny line-up for his first festival – two repertory staples, and a new commission. In recent years, the Festival has had an adventurous record in putting on new opera. The success rate has not been especially high, but the attempts deserve praise. The same applies to this latest effort. Performance and production wise it is done to a high standard. Unfortunately, I can't say that I think the work itself is ultimately of the same merit (though as seems to be happening a fair bit this week I'm once again in dissent from the rest of the critical fraternity).

The best aspect of this show are the musical performances given by a trio of fine vocal soloists: Claudia Boyle (Woman), Robin Adams (Husband) and Katherine Manley (Wife). Of the soloists Boyle gives the most consistently fine performance, and sounds most comfortable with the high lying nature of the vocal writing. Earlier on I thought Manley sounded a little at the limit of her comfort zone but she settles as the show progresses. The writing for Adams is peculiar with its periodic breaking into falsetto. This doesn't seem to me to serve any particular dramatic or emotional purpose but Adams handles it well from a performance point of view. The soloists are supported by committed playing from the Crash Ensemble under Andre de Ridder. The Ensemble bring as much drama as they can to the performance, but the score doesn't give them enough support in the endeavour. The performing line-up is completed by the non-singing role of the Caretaker (Mikel Murfi). His movement is impressive and on occasions funny but in opera you do have to provide a good reason why a character doesn't sing (even Mozart's Die Entfuhrung, a great work, doesn't wholly get past this) and Dennehy and Walsh fail to do this.

Edinburgh Fringe 2015 – An Oak Tree at the Traverse, or, A Great Theatrical Mystery

This is the tenth anniversary production of this show which has, during its lifetime, travelled widely, received an off-Broadway award and, as a google search afterwards revealed, been extravagantly praised by many critics. After sitting through it myself I cannot think how any of this has been possible. This is one of the worst examples of “the emperor has no clothes” theatre it has been my misfortune recently to encounter.

The conceit of Tim Crouch's play is that the other performer changes with each performance and has no idea of the script until they arrive on stage and he starts handing them clipboards and telling them what to say next. For reasons also passing understanding, past reviews reveal that a great many leading men and women have subjected themselves to this experience over the decade. On this occasion the second performer was Sharon Duncan-Brewster who I don't think I have previously encountered.

Monday 10 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Encounter, or, A Flawed Experiment

Certain aspects of this show are highly impressive – the technical sophistication, and Simon McBurney's performance. However, they are weakened by others – the script, and the degree to which I personally felt successfully immersed. As a result I was not as convinced as others by the show and, in particular, I felt emotionally distant from much of it.

The technical conceit of the show is to attempt to turn it into a kind of personalised bedside story. Thus, apart from the very beginning, each individual member of the audience listens to the show's soundtrack through their own personal pair of headphones. The effect is like a more sophisticated version of listening to a radio play (more sophisticated because the radio can't achieve the same surround sound effect). But it also isn't quite like a radio play because you can see the effects being produced in front of you by McBurney. His performance both physically and vocally is impressive, but I wasn't finally convinced about the effectiveness of the combination. On the way home the point of comparison occurred to me. A few years back the Festival included Pan Pan Theatre's version of Beckett's All That Fall in which the text was transmitted over speakers while the audience sat in rocking chairs mostly in darkness, the only visual stimulus being some limited lighting effects. That for me was a more powerful, convincing immersive experience than this.

Sunday 9 August 2015

EIF 2015 – The Opening Concerts, or, Includes A Blazing Performance from the Home Team

One of the great strengths of the International Festival since 2001 (and a musical combination particularly close to the heart of this blog) has been regular performances from Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. This year they opened the Usher Hall series, and the second half especially provided a showcase for Runnicles's impact on an already accomplished orchestra.

Before that, the first half gave us three Brahms choral works in partnership with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus: the Gesang der Parzen, the orchestral version of the Liebeslieder Walzer and the Schicksalslied. Collectively these made for a solid, but not wildly exciting appetiser. The Walzer are generally good fun, if rather slight pieces (the chorus had particular fun with no.11's take on spiteful people judging others). The ensemble were at their best in the Schicksalslied where they found a wonderful, quiet air of mystery.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Three Days in the Country at the National, or, Tell me the Truth about Love

Note: This is a review of the preview on Wednesday 22nd July 2015. The Press Night is this evening.

It's a pleasure to be able to report (following a number of shows that misfired variously because of work, casting or production) that Rufus Norris's National has at last produced a show pretty close to excellent in all three of those departments. The evening is also a reminder, like the Donmar's Temple, that attention to character, narrative and simplicity of staging can carry you a long way.

The play takes us into the familiar pre-Revolutionary aristocratic Russian territory so often visited by Howard Davies during the Hytner years, though the production intends I think to detach the play to some extent from that setting (difficult in practice because the text remains very clear on that point). We follow through two swift-moving, episodic acts, the romantic longings of various pairings among the company. The fractured marriage of Arkady (John Light) and Natalya (Amanda Drew). The ultimately cold young tutor (Royce Pierreson) who sets various hearts ablaze. The too clinical doctor (Mark Gatiss) and the perhaps lonely old maid (Debra Gillett). And, in a binding central performance, the lover (John Simm) who did not speak years before and has spent a life crafting a mask to conceal his passion. Like Temple the play is often very funny – most of all in the brilliant opening scene of Act Two where Gatiss's self-confessed second rate doctor proposes to Gillett's snuff-taking spinster - but it is ultimately a hard series of studies reminiscent of a line from Babylon 5 – “all love is unrequited.”

Sunday 26 July 2015

Temple at the Donmar, or, What does God require of us?

I booked for this play mainly because the cast included the great Simon Russell Beale, partly because of the venue, and not at all because of the subject matter. This was because an element of that subject, the Occupy Movement, led me to anticipate a lecture. In fact Steve Waters has written a thought provoking, funny (including a beauty of a mobile phone gag, and nice skewerings of twitter and Rowan Williams) and often moving play. The centre cannot hold, but it is a telling reminder of the value of trying, and the pain inflicted on those in that centre.

The focus of Waters's narrative is the Dean of St Paul's (played with a repressed, tortured brilliance by Russell Beale). He's caught in the middle of a number of louder, certain voices. Neither Waters nor Russell Beale commit the error of making him a saint. He's as fallible as everybody else on stage, but that doesn't lessen the value of his example. The character also makes an unexpectedly moving case for a particular type of Church of English minister. A quiet, gentle faith, yet with a hidden power, that perhaps does still have something to say.

Friday 24 July 2015

Radio 3 broadcasts from the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival

In general, I'm not a fan of blog posts that just copy and paste press releases, but since I can't see this information on either the Edinburgh Festival or Radio 3 websites, I'll make an exception.

Here are details of the BBC Radio 3 broadcasts from this year's Edinburgh International Festival. As usual, the evening concerts are deferred until September due to the small matter of the Proms rather than going out live:

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Guillaume Tell at the Royal Opera, or, Not an Experience I Care to Repeat (On-stage or Off)

This evening started indifferently, became increasingly unconvincing, and during the last two acts was overshadowed by an audience experience the like of which I have never seen in twenty plus years of opera going. I would be happy if I could think I should never see anything like it again. While the increasingly bizarre production stumbled on, and the audience atmosphere worsened, the performers on stage and in the pit made a valiant attempt with largely high quality musical performances to rescue matters, but it was not enough.

The best of the evening it will already be clear, was musical, and even that struggled against the lifeless production during the first two acts. In Acts Three and Four, and particularly after the outbreaks in the auditorium which we'll come back to, the perfomers seemed to raise their game and find in the music some of the electricity so sadly absent from most of the production. John Osborn (Melcthal) sang especially finely (and deserves high praise simply for keeping going at the start of Act Four ). He and Malin Bystrom (Mathilde) also managed to find additional passion in their Act Three duet despite the best efforts of the director to confuse matters. Gerald Finley (Guillaume Tell) didn't come across as strongly as I'd have expected early on, but again gave a fine performance in the last two acts. Among the minor roles I particularly enjoyed Enkelejda Sjikosa's Hedwige, but they were all solidly taken. Both Orchestra and Chorus battled gamely against the distractions and incoherencies of the staging. In the first two acts Pappano's conducting seemed somewhat infected by the leaden quality of what was going on in front of him, after that he located the needed drama.

Sunday 7 June 2015

Waiting for Godot at the Barbican, or, An Outstanding Evening

Owing to the Edinburgh International Festival in recent years I'd already discovered, contrary to what I'd expected, that I enjoy Beckett on stage. It was primarily for that reason that I booked to see Waiting for Godot for the first time in this run of performances by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Barbican. I hoped it would be good, I did not anticipate such a hilarious, moving and quite simply totally compelling evening.

Having now actually seen it on stage what seems to be the standard joke about it – that nothing happens, twice – seems the more puzzling. To my mind at least there's a great deal going on. The basic plot (as most readers will probably know) involves Vladimir and Estragon waiting through two days for Godot who, needless to say, never arrives. On both days some of the time spent waiting is occupied by the passing through the possible meeting place of Pozzo and Lucky. The premise itself (of waiting for Godot) is surely one of the finest running gags in the history of theatre – the more so as it becomes laced with an ever increasing, at times almost unhinged, desperation. And behind it, there's an extraordinary richness of ideas – about how difficult it is to live as an individual, the equally potentially ghastly problem of and yet indispensible need for companionship, the yearning for something beyond the world we see in front of us. At the same time, the play is a superb send up of the whole ludicrous idea of putting plays on stage in the first place. That it manages to do this so sharply, while being equally capable of chilling the viewer is testimony to a vital contrast to the many more recent practitioners who've attempted similar sending up. Beckett's mockery, unlike many would be successors, is never dismissive or contemptuous of the form. He makes us laugh at ourselves as viewers and then, suddenly, he reminds us precisely why we're still there.

Oresteia at the Almeida, or, Something of a Trial for All Concerned

Note: This is a review of a preview performance on Wednesday 3rd June 2015. The Press Night took place on Friday 5th June 2015.

There's a moment in Act 4 of this performance, by which point Orestes is being tried for his crimes, when the judge (representing an interminable list of Gods) asks the audience (we are clearly intended to think of ourselves as part of the court) whether they have any objections. It was mainly the fact that the performance had by then been going on for some 3hrs and 15mins that restrained me from responding.

Robert Icke here performs fairly radical surgery on Aeschylus's three plays in order to get them into one evening (it does not even so justify its 3.5hr+ running time). But he is also, as a number of other recent London versions of the Greeks have been, concerned to assert the work's modernity. In Act One particularly, Icke was I thought determinedly trying to make us draw parallels between Agamemnon and the Trojan War and recent Blair/Bush escapades in the Middle East. To me it felt forced, and, moreover, it doesn't altogether fit with what I recall about the original narrative – which is to say that the Greeks are not about to be attacked by the Trojans, but that the sacrifice of Iphigenia is to secure fair winds for their strike against Troy in retaliation for their abduction of Helen – all of this backstory has been deleted. This is far from the only deletion/addition, but the overall effect, as will be explained, is ambivalent. The biggest change is that Icke spends the whole first act (1hr 10 mins) to get us to the death of Iphigenia – a sequence of events that takes place before Aeschylus's plays even start. Yes, okay, I take the point that this can be seen as the origin of all the woe in the family that follows – but this only works if you clearly establish the link from that death to Klytemnestra's actions, and Icke creates an almost precisely opposite effect. All we see, until she eventually kills him (by which point and despite knowing the story well I was beginning to doubt whether she actually would) is someone who is accepting of the death of her daughter and appears to have forgiven her husband. Now you can argue Klytemnestra is being a very good actress concealing her true motivations from everybody, but if she also conceals those completely from the audience such that her killing of Agamemnon seems to come from nowhere then as drama, it's a failure. Another contributory factor here is the decision to largely write out Aegisthus – he only appears after Agamemnon has been murdered and is then played by the same actor – such that I rather suspect anyone not knowing the original would have been not a little confused by where he had come from and what his role in events was. Icke tries to get round this by implying that we are seeing all this through the eyes of Orestes who was unclear on those points. It is not a convincing decision.

Sunday 17 May 2015

The Pirates of Penzance at ENO, or, An Un-Advertised Concert Performance

For years now (and indeed again next season) ENO has relied on Jonathan Miller's venerable Mikado as a reliable revival. How the management must have hoped that hiring Mike Leigh on the back of Topsy-Turvy to direct Pirates of Penzance would furnish them with an alternative such show. But it was not to be.

Let us start, however, with the positives. This is a pretty good show musically. There are no weak links in that department among the soloists and two stand-out performances from Joshua Bloom as the Pirate King and Claudia Boyle as Mabel. It is perhaps no coincidence that those two are also the most successful individuals in transcending Leigh's lifeless production. Among the rest Robert Murray sings well as Frederic, but lacks stage presence, and all the chemistry in their partnership comes from Boyle. Andrew Shore hams it up as the Major-General – fine in theory in this rep, but it needs to be a bit more tongue in cheek. There were flashes of promising presence from Alexander Robin Bloom's Samuel, Soraya Mafi's Edith and Lydia Marchione's Isabel – a more talented director could have made something of them all, Leigh pretty completely fails. The singing and playing of chorus and orchestra under the direction of David Parry is of a good standard, but I couldn't help feeling in places (the Act 2 double chorus and Hail Poetry are obvious examples) that the chorus needed more vocal weight.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Antigone at the Barbican, or Solid Not Special

Note: This is a rather belated review of the performance on Sunday 8th March 2015. Usually I would not post something so delayed, but because we have a particular interest in the Edinburgh Festival and this travels there later in the year I wanted to record my thoughts despite the delay.

Late this month I'll finally get round to seeing Ivo van Hove's production of A View from the Bridge. Possibly it will then be clear to me why he's been much praised. On the strength of this performance it was not. It's not that this is a bad production, though there are some oddities, but I can't say that I found it either especially powerful or perceptive.

The setting is sparse. There's a raised platform in the centre into the middle of which various of the show's bodies are periodically raised and lowered, and with an access ramp leading into Kreon's house at the back. Along the front it can be accessed by various sets of steps and also facing the audience are a number of bookshelves and a sofa. The implication at the end, the reasoning behind which I couldn't make out, is that we are in some sort of archive. At the back there's a flat panel the width of the stage onto which various things are projected which add little. With the exception of the projections and the ending it's all perfectly serviceable if not especially inspired. The same applies to the costumes, which are modern and minimal, and don't do much to distinguish the characters, though this may well be intentional. I would criticise the high heels which all the women seem to be wearing which sometimes create a false note (as when Antigone is being buried alive) or undermine an attempt to hurry from one point to another (Ismene on a couple of occasions).

Sunday 8 March 2015

Game at the Almeida, or, Nasty but Unconvincing Shots

This is the second play Mike Bartlett has written for Rupert Goold's Almeida, and the third of his plays that I've seen. Neither 13 nor King Charles III especially impressed me but Game is in a different class...and not in a good way.

Bartlett's premise on this occasion is that a housing and employment crisis in some unidentified location in England (one presumes a city) has led a couple to accept a house under an unpleasant condition. That condition is that at certain times of the day they can be shot with tranquiliser darts by paying punters. I criticised Bartlett's over-praised King Charles III for its unconvincing premise. Bartlett makes even less of an attempt with the premise here. The play is completely uninterested in exploring the economic circumstances which have led to this set up, or in creating characters of sufficient depth to make their presence in the set-up, and their choices following that, have any real dramatic conviction, or activate any emotional connection (with at least this member of the audience anyway). Instead Bartlett attempts to substitute audience complicity for intelligent argument or depth of character. Thus the audience are placed, with the paying, shooting customers, in four blinds outside the gift house. All this succeeded in doing was convincing me that I had not the least desire ever to participate in such an excuse for sport and that I did not believe (not unlike in King Charles III) that such a set up would ever have got legally off the drawing board.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at ENO, or Fine Performance, Doubtful Omens

Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 21st February 2015

Wagner's Mastersingers, the programme advises, hasn't been seen at English National Opera for over thirty years. That it returns now, just as the company has been placed in special measures by the Arts Council, is ironic to say the least. On its own terms this is a very strong performance which shows the company at its best. What it tells us about the company's possible future is considerably more open to doubt.

But first let us look at this performance on its own merits. The finest work across the whole evening was unquestionably that of Edward Gardner on the podium and the ENO Orchestra in the pit. They delivered an account of this glorious score that was spacious and heartfelt but never lost momentum. Just occasionally I thought a little more attack was needed – the riot didn't quite reach the pitch of chaos it needs though the staging was also a factor here – but this is a minor quibble. Unlike many, I have a fondness for the Coliseum sound which I still feel has more warmth (if that's the word I want) than Covent Garden. I've long dreamed of hearing this score in this house, and I wasn't disappointed.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Man and Superman at the National, or, Settling Down for a Nice Long Conversation

Note: This is a review of the fourth preview on Friday 20th February 2015. 3 further previews remain. The Press Night takes place on Wednesday 25th February 2015.

Productions of Shaw's plays have been a highlight of recent years at the National and I've consequently been looking forward to this since it was announced, especially as Simon Godwin was returning to direct after his magnificent work on Strange Interlude. It did not disappoint.

This was my first time seeing the play. In advance I read an interview with director Simon Godwin which discussed the question of the omission of the dream sequence in Act 3. I think he is perfectly right that it is in fact an integral part of the work which, to my mind, enriches the debate about relations between the sexes and adds an extra dimension to the resolution of Act 4. Nor is this an evening which felt to me too long – Godwin and his ensemble make 3.5hrs absolutely fly by.

Previous Shaws I've seen usually involve a debate about something, and Man and Superman is no exception. In this case, Shaw's main concern is a broad survey of relations between the sexes, the nature of marriage, appropriate gender roles. However, there's a gloriously wide-ranging character to this work, so that one is also carried into barbed remarks on Anglo-American relations (a professional interest of mine), class, socialism, art. Moreover, while serious questions are under discussion in all these areas the play almost never loses a sense of fun (bouyed up by sparkling one-liners of which my pick was that concerning muffins and inspiration, while my companion's was that regarding a moral gymnasium). Further, while Shaw in my experience gives scope for rival points of view (and thereby scores over many modern “issue” playwrights who struggle badly with this) it usually remains fairly clear where his loyalties lie. Here I found things intriguingly ambigious – especially in terms of what attitude we're supposed to leave the theatre with regarding Tanner's fate. Only one aspect did seem underexplored – that of Tanner as author of The Revolutionist's Handbook.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Eugene Onegin at the Barbican, or, Who Are All These People?

I'm beginning to have the slight suspicion that Eugene Onegin is one of those stories which is not for me, as this is the second version of it I've seen which left me cold, though it may not have been helped by the fact I was labouring under a nasty cold to start with.

The first problem was the rather baffling concept, the purpose of which was no clearer to me at the end than at the beginning. Rimas Tuminas has decided to set the adaptation in a dance studio in which various men (whose reasons for being there are also opaque) decide to start reciting Pushkin's poem. The effect of this peculiar arrangement was to put a hurdle between me and a real emotional engagement with the narrative from the beginning because I couldn't work out who they were and I didn't really believe in them.

Saturday 31 January 2015

3 Winters at the National, or, “I sometimes still find hope...”

Tena Štivičić sets herself a daunting task in this new play at the National. Taking four generations of a Croatian family and the house in which they live as her theme, she seeks to tell the story of Yugoslavia/Croatia from the end of the Second World War to Croatian accession to the EU. At times the weight of history and ideological debate threaten to drown the characters but a haunting truthfulness shines through.

Štivičić picks three moments (the three winters of the title) to observe her characters: 1945 and the end of WWII, 1990 and the imminent collapse of Yugoslavia into war and 2011 (Croatian accession to the EU). But this is not a straightforward chronological narrative – scenes from across the three periods are intercut with each other. Close attention must be paid to keep on top of the stories, and another result is to leave one wanting at various points to see more (the Dunya-Karl marriage in particular is a little lightly drawn). Overall though the intercutting is well judged – enriching our understanding of the different moments and the characters shifting predicaments. A spellbinding instance is the final scene of the first half. We've already seen the youthful Alexander King (Alex Price) in 1945, hampered by a royal name that is now a liability, striving to match the Communist convictions of his wife and conscious that he doesn't altogether believe. We've also seen him stretch out a hand to the aristocratic Karolina whom the Communists have evicted from the house. Now we see him, an old man (James Laurenson) in 1990 following his wife's funeral. Out of nowhere he starts telling the story of his perilous survival at the end of the war. In itself it's a magical piece of writing, and Laurenson delivers it to perfection. But it was the little moment that follows which really got me. The tv news announces the breakdown of the Communist Party Congress, signalling the appalling war we know will follow. Director Howard Davies has the now old Karolina (an imposing Susan Engel) slowly move to a chair beside Laurenson, and take his hand, their eyes never leaving one another's faces as the curtain falls. It's moving for the human gesture, but more because it is impossible not to be conscious, because we've already been witnesses to it, that they've suffered this kind of thing before. Their resigned silence tellingly reminds us how easily we forget.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Judy Mackerras

As regular readers will know, we at Where's Runnicles are great admirers of Charles Mackerras. We were saddened to learn of the death of his wife Judy Mackerras on 13 December 2014. She was a remarkable person and I have very fond memories of the occasions when I met her.

Our father, Garth Pollard, a friend of the family for many years, delivered one of the tributes at Judy's memorial service on 17 January 2015. The following post is drawn from that and is published with the permission of the Mackerras family.

Readers may also be interested to know about the forthcoming book about Charles Mackerras edited by Nigel Simeone and John Tyrrell, due to be published later in 2015.